Robin Williams says he’s giving up man-child roles. But not just yet.
Starting Friday, he’ll be seen in the title role of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack,” playing a 10-year-old boy in a 40-year-old man’s body. The character, who is aging four times as fast as normal, is trying to pump himself up for a big adventure - going to school with kids he had previously seen only through his bedroom window.
Since “Jumanji,” “Aladdin,” “Toys,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Hook,” Williams has been Hollywood’s premier big kid.
But enough is enough, says Williams, who has three children of his own: Zachary, 13, Zelda, 6, and Cody, 4. “That’s it,” he says, speaking softly, peering through wire-rimmed glasses in a sand-colored suite in a hotel beside the sea, “because it could get creepy. It’s like one of those bad party clowns - ‘Hi, boys and girls, I’m 60 and I’m going to make some balloon characters.’ If you want to be a child, do it at home.”
For years, Williams would respond to interviewers with brilliantly improvised comic bits, using wit, the shield of the shy, to avoid exposing himself - or the anxiety and desperation that underlie the humor of so many great comics, himself certainly included. In recent years, success, maturity and parenthood have mellowed him.
A few years ago, he said only half-jokingly that he was addicted to cocaine because it slowed down his racing mind. These days, he says his only habit is the electronic fix - sitting for hours on-line.
Moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area from Los Angeles helps him live a more grounded life, he says. “I ride bikes. I’m the exact opposite of what people see when I perform. Sometimes I’ll be in a bookstore and somebody will see me and they’ll think I’m on medication because I’m just basically, you know … quiet. If you have a style like this kind of output, it’s literally almost like the equivalent of a computer battery. You have to go off-line and recharge.”
He concedes it can’t be an accident that he has returned to childhood in so many of his films and that it’s probably tied to his own childhood. The only son of a Ford Motor Co. executive and a mother who pursued a career as a model, he was left alone a lot. So he created his own imaginative world, moving armies of toy soldiers across carpets, inventing dialogue for his toys, until he was, in his words, stuffed into a blazer and sent to a “Dead Poets Society” school. Then, at 16, came a move to Marin County, where he has felt most at home ever since.
Still, Williams cautions, there’s such a thing as reading too much into an actor’s role. “I wanted to do (‘Jack’) because of the chance to work with Francis,” says Williams, who has gone into partnership with Coppola and Robert De Niro in a San Francisco restaurant.
“I could relate to Jack’s desire to be with other children because I also lived in a big house on a lot of land, but way away from everybody else. I would come home and there were no brothers or sisters. It was lonely. It was stimulating in the sense that I had a lot of toys, or whatever. But there is that need for contact, the good and bad of it. Kids will make fun of you. I got picked on physically, emotionally, intellectually.
“But Francis was talking about how he had polio as a kid and had times when he couldn’t be with other kids, and he related to it on that level, of being isolated.”
It would be a mistake, though, Williams says, to equate Jack’s game-playing relationship with his mother, played by Diane Lane, to Williams’ childhood with his own mother, Laurie Williams.
“My mother - the truth is, I know her a lot better now than I did when I was a kid. We spend much more time together now. She was like a runway model and she’s a great character. In and around San Francisco, a lot more people know her and my stepbrother than me because she’s so charismatic. When I was a kid, she was doing the social thing and modeling. She is gorgeous, and yes, she is the performer.
“If my father gave me a certain dryness and a work ethic, my mother is the reason I do movies like ‘Mrs. Doubtfire.’ She was literally a cutup. I remember one night she cut up a rubber band and put in her nose and it would fall out at the table among all my father’s executive friends. I think our connection was entertainment.”
Williams is a lot less talkative about his own children. He tends to shield them not only from the press, but in some cases from his own movies. Cody, his younger son, hasn’t seen “Jumanji,” for instance.
“Being a parent forces you to kind of just take responsibility,” he says. “It gives you a sense of the world being bigger than yourself, that there’s something going on besides you. My life hasn’t changed that much. It just gets more grounded, just more solid. Kind of the frivolous stuff falls away, you know?”
Among the frivolous stuff were Williams’ much-covered excesses with drugs and alcohol, followed by tabloid feeding frenzies when Williams (after divorcing his first wife, Valerie Velardi) married Marsha Garces, who once had worked as Williams’ nanny and went on to, among other things, co-produce Williams’ most profitable film, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”